A longtime activist, sociologist Bob Ross reveals the persistence of sweatshops in the global economy, and encourages his students to confront issues concerning fair labor practices.
Vulnerable Labour in Global Capitalism
The following is the text of a paper prepared for presentation by Dr. Robert J. S. Ross at a conference
organized by the Centre for Comparative Public Management and Social
Policy, City University of Hong Kong, on "Labour
in a Globalising World: The
Challenges for the Asia"January 4-6, 2001.
This paper addresses a conference title:
"Labour and Globalisation:
The Challenges for Asia".
The Call to the conference continues from the title to suggest
a competitive environment in which state policy makers will see their
options in the context of "competition
from Europe and North America."From my perspective, as a student of the apparel industry in
North America and the problem of labor abuse in apparel workplaces
worldwide, the Call to this conference poses -- to say the least -- an
may or may not be true -- many westerners have been told it is -- that
the Chinese expression "may you live in interesting times"
connotes a less than charitable or benevolent sentiment.The globalisation of labour markets, especially in labor
intensive industries, promises all of us what we may in time come to
see as somewhat more interesting times than we would otherwise
prefer. The rapidly
extended and intrusively expanding unrestrained markets created in the
last thirty years are producing a wild ride that we may in time come
to regret. Because this
skeptical attitude is not the accepted wisdom of Western economists,
editorial writers or policy makers, and because many influential
actors world wide see the critics of global capitalism as somewhere
between merely sentimental and highly
irresponsible, I shall take some pains to lay out the basis of this
skepticism in a series of propositions. These propositions form, as a whole, a twin thesis:
the current form of global capitalism makes labour more
vulnerable to capital; those
most at risk are the most vulnerable laborers in any given social
minorities, and women.
Global Capitalism creates a global labor market.
In many industries in the world today, national and cultural
differences between workers are declining in importance.
The skills and wage levels of local workforces and their work
discipline -- that is, the cost of labor and the ability of employers
to control employees -- are ever more critical locational variables
wherever the cost labor is an important calculation for profit and
loss. Prudent voices
remind us that there are many things besides the cost and discipline
of labor that dictate industrial location.
But the prudent voices protest too much: wherever labor costs
are an appreciable fraction of a product's cost ;
or where labor costs in developed countries are major multiples
of those in developing countries, even in sophisticated product
sectors, the tendency of investors is to view the world as a labor
market in which differentiated price is a prominent feature.
In passing, I note that in this regard, there is a ferocious
antiracist quality about today's global capitalism.
The stereotypes about which regions and peoples can make which
kinds of products are fading. Car
engines are made in Mexico and computers as well as apparel in many
Asian countries; simple sewing is done in Los Angles, as well as
sophisticated electronic products.
1980," wrote Padmanabha
Gopinath, Assistant Director-General of the ILO and Director of the
International Institute for Labour Studies, (Gopinath 1998) "[N]early 70 %
of the world's labour force were sheltered from international
competition by trade barriers, capital controls, and planned trade. By
2000, less than 10 % of workers will be living in countries insulated
from world markets. The newly industrialized countries of East Asia
are already major actors, and the second tier of industrializing
economies of Southeast Asia is now emerging on the scene. By 2000,
China, South Asia and the countries of the former USSR, representing
nearly half the world labour force, will enter the global
Notoriously labour is not nearly so mobile as
capital; but production processes can come to laborers in a world with
ever more perfect financial markets and more powerful techniques of
communication, coordination and transport.
Moreover, workers do in fact flow across boundaries towards
jobs. Migrants to North
America and to Europe from low income sections of the Western
Hemisphere and of the European and Mediterranean periphery are quite
numerous (Bongaarts and Bulatao 2000: 156-187)
and concentrated in industries such as apparel.
In such industries, even within economies with relatively low
unemployment rates at national levels, the labor supply of newcomers
is one that is more readily exploited than resident workers.
The combination of these two effects -- work moving to pools of
available workers, and workers moving toward metropolitan
opportunities, often across borders from poor to rich nations --
creates the possibility of thinking about world prices and working
conditions for labor. For
millions this threatens a leveling down -- a race to the bottom.
For other millions the hope is that it means a leveling up,
a process of ascent in world development.
Investment tends to flow where workers' social protections are weaker
Those skeptical about the potential of global capitalism to
keep the promise of ascent to all who aspire to it, focus on the
social implications of capital mobility.
Because capital is notoriously more mobile than labor, and
governments are now competing with one another to seduce capital's
golden goose to lay its egg upon their doorsteps, public policy has a
tendency to cater to capital's requirements. (Ross 1983)
So, even the noted herald of globalization, Jeffrey Sachs
"the post-tax income of capital is privileged relative to the post-tax
income of labour as a result of globalization and especially
globalization that leads to openness of financial markets and not just
of trade. For example, both evidence and theoretical logic make it
quite clear that union wage premia are driven down by the openness of
the world financial system and that the ability of capital to move
offshore really does pose limits on the wage-setting or
wage-bargaining strategies of trade unions which are restrained in
their wage demands by the higher elasticity of labour demand.
Similarly, I think that, over time, the evidence would show that the
burden of taxation falls increasingly on labour and less and less on
capital as a result of these changes given that taxation inevitably
falls on the fixed factor and is, as inevitably, escaped by the highly
mobile factor. At the end of the day, the fact that labour cannot move
to the low capital income taxation countries suggests that we will
find implicitly, both in terms of incidence, and in terms of choice of
tax system, a movement towards a heavier burden on labour taxation and
away from capital taxation in the taxation of factor incomes."
The cost of labor is not just a factor of wages
and strategic labor relations. It is also conditioned by the social
wage and the legal protections which states may or may not offer to
workers. Together, the
globalization of the labor market and the flow of capital toward lower
priced labor and less socially protected labor is restructuring
industry on a world scale. (Ross and Trachte 1990)
The International Labor Organization, in a report
released in October, 2000 notes that apparel employment has been level
on a world scale through the nineties -- but is has dramatically
shifted regions. By
1997-98 Asia employed 62% of the clothing workers in the world. To
illustrate this shift, consider that in 1980 there were 1.6 million
clothing workers in China, and 1.3 million in the United States.
In 1997 there were 3.7 million workers in China's clothing
industry and in 1998 there were under 800,000 in the U.S.
(ILO 2000) Much of
this industrial expansion has been in employment for export, and China
is the world's largest exporter of apparel.
The foreign firms who contract for and build clothing factories
in China, however, appear to be duplicating in China a strategy that
apparel makers in the United States used in the 1950's.
In that era, just prior to the globalization of the
apparel industry, manufacturers struggled to maintain profit margins
by moving production from the Northern
U.S. to the South -- away from unions and more rigorous workers
safety and other protections, and towards a lower wage, anti-labor
political environment. Now
we are told of the tendency for export contracts in China to migrate
from environments with more workers protections to those with less
rigorous protections, and lower wages. According to widely
disseminated reports by reputable NGOs, workers in foreign owned
factories in China's apparel export sector frequently face working
conditions that fail to meet internationally recognized standards, and
fail to follow the People's Republic's own laws. (E.g., Kernaghan
2000; Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee 2000)
This phenomenon is global.
In the late Eighties there were hardly any clothing workers in
Nicaragua, to take another example; by the mid nineties there were
exports of US $35 million
from Nicaragua's EPZ; by
this year those exports were about $300 million and 19,000 workers
labored in the Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone.
The employers of the Zone are fiercely antiunion, breaking both
local law with impunity, and rejecting internationally recognized
rights of association.
(Ross and Kernaghan 2000)
Between nations labor-intensive
processes concentrate in nations that are more authoritarian and where
civic rights are exercised less vigorously.
Contemporary discourse about the benefits of
globalization focuses on success stories.
These stories emphasize the rising GNP/capita in national
economies open to world trade or where political leaders actively
invited sweatshop industries as launching pads for future development.
The economists' anecdotes and the sociologists' studies differ
markedly in their conclusions. My
colleague Bruce London and I have examined many studies that show that
large scale multinational corporation investment in developing
economies is associated, in the last thirty years, with declining
provision for basic human needs, increasing inequality, and ultimately
slowdowns in growth. In
our own work we have shown that repression, low levels of civil
expression, few strikes, and more inequality characterize those
national economies that are more likely to attract investment from
global firms. Put another
way, our work shows that capital seeks out jurisdictions where workers
are more vulnerable due to the national civic framework.
However, in general globalization encourages the tendency for
capital to engage more vulnerable workers.
(London and Ross 1995)
Within nations more vulnerable groups
are apt to work in economic conditions far below the normatively
accepted standards of those nations.
Wherever globalisation unites, in the same industries, labor
reserves of workers in richer countries with those in poorer ones, the
tendency is for standards of employment in the richer countries to
descend, often sinking below nominally adequate national legal
standards. The labor force recruited for such work must, therefore, be
impelled by scarcity to accept such employment.
This is structurally similar within poor countries as
well: global industries
will boost or maintain export advantages by keeping labor costs to a
minimum. In poor
countries the public justification is that these industries gain, and
must maintain their comparative advantage in world trade by keeping
wages low. This often
means recruiting workers who are not able to command normal wages or
maintain high labor standards in local terms.
Everywhere, then, in rich countries and poor
ones, the labor intensive global industries like apparel and
electronics, recruit women workers, rural to urban migrants and
immigrants, and discriminated against minorities as those who toil at
the bottom of the global production system. In the United States
super-exploited workers of the apparel sweatshops are
disproportionately immigrant women; among these are disproportionately undocumented or illegal immigrants.
(Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000)
In Europe, immigrants and those seeking refuge from dangerous
and turbulent environments are the most vulnerable too.
(Edmonson et al 2000)
In poor countries, it is young girls recruited
from country villages who fuel the export industries that in turn fuel
the hopes and controversies about world trade. It is these girls and
women who in their very bodies and their vulnerability suffer the
mortal consequences of their comparative inability to protect
themselves in law and practice. At
the end of November, 2000, 47 workers, many of them young women, died
in a fire in a Bangladesh garment factory:
victims of their country's comparative advantage in world
trade, just as the 146 young women were victims of the unregulated
market of New York City's garment factories of 1911. (The Independent
2000; McClymer 1998 )
apparel industry exhibits this process with unfortunate
clarity. In rich
countries, sweatshop conditions of one hundred years ago are
reproduced, induced by competition with exploitation in the low income
During the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand", the
1909-10 strike that began the unionization and reform of the U.S.
apparel industry, one of the leaders of the women workers, Clara
Lemlich, described conditions in her factory
-- not the worst -- as follows:
"There are two kinds of work--regular, that is salary work, and piecework. The regular work pays
about $6 a week and the girls have to be at their machines at 7
o'clock in the morning and they stay at them until 8 o'clock at
night, with just one-half hour for lunch in that time.
...there is just one row of machines that the daylight ever gets
to--that is the front row, nearest the window. The
girls at all the other rows of machines back in the shops have to
work by gaslight, by day as well as by night. Oh, yes, the shops
keep the work going at night, too. ...The shops are
unsanitary-- that's the word that is generally used, but
there ought to be a worse one used." (In Stein 1977: 12-13)
Eighty-nine years later, in 1996, Nancy Penaloza
spoke to the Washington, D.C. "Fashion Industry Forum@
in July. A worker born in El Salvador and employed by a contractor who
makes Liz Claiborne suits in Manhattan Nancy addressed a meeting
called by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.
"My boss doesn't pay any tax or
social security. I work
at least 56 hours a week, Monday to Saturday.
Sometimes I go 66 hours a week.
I make $200.07 a week. If
there is a lot more I have to work on Sundays.
I never get vacation. I
never even get a whole weekend off.
Sometimes I have to work on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The conditions are very bad.
My factory is very hot in summer and very cold in winter.
My boss is screaming to me all the time.
He is always very angry. I
can't ask him any questions because I'm afraid he's going to hit me.
All the time he hits me working, like that (she gestures
hitting her head with her fist).
The factory is very dirty.
When I am working I'm afraid because there is big rats and mice
crawl on my feet." (Penaloza
U.S. government data shows that sixty percent of
New York and Los Angeles apparel workers are employed under illegal
wage and working conditions. Perhaps
400,000 US apparel workers toil under what we define as sweatshop
conditions. The way globalization creates this dynamic was sketched by
a contractor who spoke to a journalist at the brink of the era when
sweatshop conditions returned to New York City after a long generation
of relative decency in garment employment.
Here is the way that reality looks in New York City's garment
industry: the speaker is a "sweatshop" contractor in the late
"A manufacturer will tell me he
has 2,000 twelve-piece blouses he needs sewn.
I tell him I need at least $10 per blouse to do a decent job on
a garment that complicated. So
then he tells me to get lost‑‑he offers me $2.
If I don't take that, he tells me he can have it sent to Taiwan
or South America somewhere, and have it done for 50 cents. So we haggle--sometimes I might bring him up to
$4 per blouse. Now you tell me, how can I pay someone "union
scale" ($3.80) or
even the minimum wage (2.90), when I'm only getting $4 per blouse?
With overhead and everything else, I may be able to pay the
ladies $1.20 per blouse, but that's tops.
There's nothing on paper.
I get it in cash." (Buck 1979)
The conventional wisdom is that
the suffering of workers in the poor countries is but temporary, for they and their nations will experience
Asian examples are often given for optimism in the face of the
miserable conditions experienced by exploited workers.
Hong Kong, Formosa, Singapore and Korea all experienced high
rates of growth through export led industrialization, and some of this
trickled down to workers before the Asian financial crises of the late
Nineties. (Kristoff and WuDunn 2000)
Skeptics ask: can
the conditions of 1960-1990 in the Asian "miracle" economies
be reproduced elsewhere? Unique conditions were engaged n those times
and places. These
included American aid and trade concessions given in conjunction with
Cold War maneuvers; the advantage of pioneering access to world
markets through low wage labor, as distinct from the widespread
availability of such labor pools today.
The lack of similar recent progress for workers in the Western
hemisphere stands in contrast to the model of upwards ascent for
nations and working classes as does the more general social science
cross national finding of increased inequality and poorer provision
for basic needs among nations more penetrated by multinational
capital. (London and Smith 1988; London 1990; Shandra, London, and
Is the rise of inequality a harbinger of success
or stagnation? In the contemporary discourse of development there is a
pretense to hard-headed realism that argues that the sacrifices of
today’s sweatshop workers will produce a more affluent society
later. This proposition has an historical analogy in mind,
and also a paradigm of political economy.The historical analogy that justifies inaction on
the problems of labor
abuse is that which projects as inevitable the growth of GNP per
capita as it occurred in the older industrial (Euro-American) regions.
The later attainment of a working class that by and large has
been well-fed, well-housed, and has time for leisure is assumed to
follow GNP growth . The
further supplements by public policies and private practices that
protect workers and their families and communities from the
oscillations of markets and the insecurities of business cycles also
are benefits, in this version, of some magic hand – they just appear.The implicit advice of
both the academic and journalistic sages is almost religious:
Be patient. Blessed
are all they that wait. (Isiah 30:18;
Lindauer 1993; Meyerson 1997)
Lodged within the analogy that depicts as
inevitable but slow the melioration of the abuses of vulnerable
workers today is a model of how workers ever prosper. This model
assumes that workers will prosper more or less automatically, but only
afteremployers are enriched. It is a straightforward trickle-down
theory of capitalist expansion. Economists Jeffrey Sachs and Paul
Krugman have argued that because abusive working conditions are better
than no jobs, reformers are wrong to try to change those conditions.
(Meyerson1997) The reasoning is not new; Voltaire use it in the 18th
century as satire but now it is neoliberal theory:
"...Things cannot be otherwise than as they
are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must
necessarily be created for the best end. Everything is best in the
best of all possible worlds." (Voltaire, 1759)
Will the neoliberal world market allow continued
improvements in the level
of living of vulnerable workers in global export industries? Yes,
answers this view, but only if we leave their employers alone,
allowing them to extract 70 and eighty hour weeks, and pay below
family reproduction levels, and leave their workplaces as dangerous
but inexpensive as they are. This hard-headed view argues for a whole generation of
sacrifice when the struggle over the regulation of labor standards is
in view; but when the
subject of regulating child labor arises, argument is that during the
transition to adequate adult wages, the missing contributions of
children to family budgets will cause hardship. (Meyerson 1997;
The flaw in this reasoning is its reading of
history. In every country
the ways in which workers escaped from the conditions of the
“Satanic” mills of the 19th century was a combination
of economic growth, political and social struggles, ands alliances
with reformers across classes and often, indeed, across geographies.
In the United States, just as manufacturers were arguing the
necessity of child labor – after all, workers’ families needed the
money – workers and middle class allies were gradually drawing a
legal hedge around the workplace to exclude little children.
By 1938 child labor was excluded and minimum wages and maximum
hours were set.
It did take a long time, though somewhat shorter in Western
Europe. Lest anyone be complacent about the length of time this
took, consider the human cost of the miserable conditions of the turn
of the 20th Century. Many an immigrant family in New York City suffered high rates
of infant mortality, deaths from industrial accidents and from
preventable diseases. In
combating these conditions workers and their allies depended on no
invisible hands: they
formed unions, campaigned for social insurance, for safety laws, for
protective legislation, and for political officials who would enforce
It is a poorly grounded complacency that believes the current
growth in world trade will lift the lives and hopes of today’s
toilers by the mere fact of growth.
Unequal distribution of growth could deprive today’s
laborer’s of a share of potential decency.
Given that inequality has grown along with neoliberalism, there
are strong grounds to doubt that in itself neoliberal growth will
produce widespread human welfare.
Labour could be excluded globally as it was in the West in the
nineteenth century. That
I doubt this will happen is not because I have confidence in
neoliberal institutions, but because I have confidence that working
people will find ways to cooperate across national boundaries as they
have within nations in times past. (Ross 1995a, Ross 1995b)
There is a tendency in technical discussions of
social policy aimed at protecting vulnerable or excluded groups, in
market based economies, to
look to state policies that bear on internal or domestic
redistributions; the context of global capitalism may be evoked as cause but
not targeted for policy. In
these times, it may be that policies of nonstate organizations, in
particular, labour unions, and also policies made by states, that aim
explicitly at the regulation of global capital are at least as
important. The big
question is whether workers through independent, representative
institutions can grow and learn to cooperate internationally;
it is they who have the most to lose and the most to gain in
considering whether we will, in this century, see a high speed race to
the bottom, or, however slower, a common ascent to shared abundance.
We often approach these questions by counting
things: wages; hours;
injuries. We know of
course that as we count we are really talking about the quality of
human lives. In the United States, in the era of textile and apparel
unionization, after the strike of sewing machine operators in
1909-1910, and close upon the heels of the Lowell, Massachusetts
strike of textile workers in 1912, a young poet wrote about the
struggle for "Bread and Roses."
This poem, set to music in the 1960s, has become an anthem for
women workers, and indeed, for all the vulnerable and voiceless, who
strive not just for a bit more of the things we can count, but also
for dignity, beauty, and gentleness in their lives.
It includes these lines:
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth
until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses!
Nancy's maximum pay of $10,400 inflated to 1999 ($11,042) is under the
poverty level for two persons under 65 years of age. See: U.S. Census
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